September 3, 2017 – Homily By Bishop Noel Treanor at St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast
HOMILY NOTES – SUNDAY 22A
ST PETER’S CATHEDRAL, BELFAST
03 SEPTEMBER 2017
Readings : Jer 20.7-9; Ps 62; Rm 12.1-2; Mt 16.21-27
I The grace of the Christian way
Early in the history of the first Christian communities the Christian life was referred to as “the way”. This term is found in early Christian writings. As a term, “the way” suggests characteristics or qualities of the Christian faith that are as true today as they were all those centuries ago.
Some of these qualities of the Christian faith are highlighted in the lines from St Paul’s letter to the Romans that we have just read. Let’s look at two phrases in that reading :
- “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rm12.2) : we notice how this description of the transformation of our outlook on life, our attitudes, our way of seeing the world, people and history, is contrasted and set over against the phrase that goes before it – “do not model yourselves on the behaviour of the world” (Rm 12.2).
In these lines St Paul is stating something we know and have experienced ourselves : living by the Word of God, that is, engaging with divine grace, gives us a dynamic perspective on life and an alternative and new manner of living. The life of Christian faith involves us in a challenging, ever-refreshing, ever-renewing dynamic. It is the dynamic of the working of divine grace in our lives as we make our way through life.
To live by the Word of God and “follow the way”, as the early Christians put it, is a choice. It’s a life-choice! Like all choices we live it day by day and we revitalise our choice in all kinds of circumstances and ways from time to time as we travel the road of life.
The Christian life is a free choice of faith in God incarnate in Jesus Christ and of the world view and values that follow from this faith option. Recognising the Christian way as a choice freely made is a key insight into our self-understanding as Christians and especially in our times : our view of life as Christians, our values and value system do not depend on what is commonly agreed by society – a point St Paul also makes for the people of his time.
Of course the Christian view of the world shares and espouses many values and rights with other faiths, with systems of rational thought, with legal systems, conventions and declarations. However the Christian value system and its source transcend the law, whilst respecting the law. What St Paul refers to as the “new mind”, the Christian value system, is not dependent on the law. What is legal, what a legal system establishes as permissible legally, may fall short of the Christian moral and ethical standard. This is exemplified is current debates on issues such as, abortion, euthanasia and marriage. On substantive subjects such as these, in matters of absolutes, the voice of Christian advocacy responds to a higher good. It is summoned to challenge prophetically those who govern and legislate. In a similar vein that Christian voice of advocacy will espouse such complex issues as, freedom of conscience and its rights in the law and in provision of public policy.
The Christian way, the call of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its value system, is a call to a way of being and living. It is an invitation to a way of life that calls its followers to live and stand for truths that human reason and law should serve, but alas sometimes fall short of, even as they seek through compromise on absolute values a consensus in favour of the common good, which in the end by that very compromise they are led to betray.
For the Christian of today it has to be clear that Constantine is dead ! We have to take recognise that the law may not always enshrine the moral and ethical as it seeks to set legal limits on individual and social behaviour and practice. In contemporary society the Christian must rely on both reason and the grace and power of personal faith-inspired witness to the beauty and power of the gospel to persuade, convert and convince. Our duty as Christians is to propose, explain and give witness to a higher truth, not to impose. After all the Christian life is an exercise of radical personal freedom of choice for gospel values.
In this regard a second element in this extract from this section of St Paul’s letter to the Romans is worth thinking over :
- notice how in these short lines St Paul addresses the readers and hearers of his letter – then and now – as “thinking beings” : “think of god’ mercy … in a way that is worthy of thinking beings …” (Rm 12.1).
With these simple words St Paul touches that great question of the relationship between human reason and the Christian way of faith. It’s an issue he broaches in his letters and that we have seen him write about in his first letter to the Corinthians, which we heard at Mass some weeks ago. This vitally important subject is at the heart of Christian theology. Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis have been dedicated two texts to exploring its contours. The texts are two Encyclical Letters – Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio) by published by Pope John Paul II in 1998 and The Light of Faith (Lumen Fidei), published by Pope Francis in 2013. They are well worth searching on the internet and are worthy texts for a reading group!
II “To discover the will of God and know what is good” (Rm 12.2)
To come back to St Paul and his letter – his lines open up a key subject for Christian self-awareness and identity. These lines and phrases offer a launching pad for thinking over and refreshing our sense of who we are and where we are in today’s society as Christian women and men, of whatever age and generation.
These lines of St Paul invite us to live our faith as thinking, reflective people. They assert the compatibility, indeed the complementarity, between human reason and the Christian faith, between the choice to believe and what St Paul calls the “reasonable service of you” (to God) (Rm 12.2).
All of this train of thought about the Christian life is further developed as it links with the two scenarios outlined in the readings from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 20.7-9) and from the gospel text (Mt 16.21-27) that we have heard in this liturgy of the Word.
The lines from Jeremiah describe the tension we all know between the beauty of the faith-inspired world view and its values and the ambivalent realities and forces of existence. How often, like Jeremiah, we are tempted to say : “I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name any more” (Jer 20.9).
From time to time we too experience this inner conflict that was Jeremiah’s in his time. Betimes we are tempted to take the easier way, to dream, like Jeremiah, of an existence hidden in the crowd : you know our reflex when things get complicated – keep your head down, say nothing, follow the crowd, sure, it will be all right! Is this “the way that is worthy of thinking beings” (Rm12.1) ?
Tensions, puzzles, unanswered questions, new questions, facing the ambivalences of the human conditions and living with them – all of this is part of a dynamic, living Christian faith both at the level of each Christian’s personal life and also at the level of the Christian community, parish and local Church. As Christians we cannot hide our heads in the sands. We face, assume, live with and carry in faith the weight, as well as the joys of existence.
And this is where Jeremiah’s predicament anticipates the gospel text for today. It opens unto the place of the Cross in the life of Christ and in the life of all who follow him. We carry the Crosses of life in the hope of resurrection and in the knowledge that by carrying our Crosses and helping other to carry theirs we encounter the saving and liberating mercy of God – the very subject that St Paul invites us to think about in the opening words of today’s second reading. It is in the knowledge and spiritual experience of that tender mercy that we “live, move and have our being” (Acts 17.28), as Christians and citizens of our communities, societies and states.